Welcome to Chicago Newsroom

Welcome to the Chicago Newsroom home page and archive.

The big idea behind Chicago Newsroom is that we assemble involved, knowledgeable people around the table and we yack about the week’s local news. Most often we tap journalists, but you’ll also find historians, political activists, academicians and newsmakers in the mix, too.

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Here’s the complete archive of Chicago Newsroom. The show began in September, 2010, and you can watch every show by scrolling down to it and hitting Play.

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Thanks for watching!

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CN July 21 2016


Carolyn Grisko and Chris Robling have been in the political  and communications consulting business for years. They’re as experienced in their fields as anyone you’ll find in Chicago. But they admit they didn’t see Trump coming.

“When he said, the Mexicans coming here are rapists and murderers,” Grisko remembers,  that was the moment that I thought, all right, this is a ten-minute campaign. It wouldn’t even be conceivable to me.”

But, as we know, it didn’t happen that way.

Grisko and Robling don’t agree much on the issues, but all three of us have known one another since our days together in the 80’s, so it was an energetic, but respectable conversation.

No time to sit and watch? How about grabbing our new Soundcloud link, where you can listen to this show on your personal device? (And you can always subscribe, so Soundcloud will send you a link every week.) LISTEN to this week’s show here.

AND, here’s the complete transcript of this show, in WORD format:CN transcript July 21 2016

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CN July 14 2016


Suppose your elementary school is really overcrowded, and you think maybe a new school’s needed in the area, or at least a nice addition to your current school. How do you go about getting it?

Well, there’s a process. It’s just that nobody really knows what it is. But there are some hints.

WBEZ’s Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea got themselves a copy of the CPS Master Facilities Plan, and have been snooping around in it.  They were trying to figure out how two schools in affluent areas were able to each secure $20 million additions despite the fact that there were many other schools with far greater overcrowding issues.

In fact, they concluded, two-thirds of the six hundred-million spent or allocated by Mayor Emanuel has been spent at schools with at least 25% white enrollment. And considering the fact that the student population is less than 10% white, that’s a very small number of the city’s schools.

“The decisions about where to build, where not to build, who is going to even get the new roof, right, who is going to get the new boiler? It’s done in such a vacuum, Karp asserts. “You know, we have this masters facilities plan, but nowhere in the master’s facilities plan does it say you’re first, you’re second, and you’re third. Where are you on a list? It’s sort of like…there’s no way for anybody to tell. So then you have Rahm Emanuel having these private meetings with parents, giving out little presents.”

It’s made all the more complicated  when one considers that, in the past few years we’ve seen Hispanic families holding lengthy hunger strikes to call attention to the need for new schools in Little Village, and African-American families holding a lengthy hunger strike to win a new high school to replace Dyett.

“They wait and they starve themselves to get things,” Vevea explains, “whereas for whatever is going on in the outer ring around the Loop right now it’s like somebody mentions it at a cocktail party and all of a sudden you will get an annex. It feels a little like these came out of nowhere. ”

Karp’s and Vevea’s recent story about how construction spending advances segregation uses several examples of policy-makers turning their backs on solid, adjacent schools that could have been dramatically improved for the money spent on additions, in at least one case less than a mile away.

They describe the situation with Lincoln School in Lincoln Park, given a 20-million dollar addition, while chronically under-enrolled Manierre sits about a mile away with an almost totally black student body.

“Why is the district willing to allow this isolated school, it’s a racially isolated, economically isolated school – to exist in the middle of one of the best neighborhoods in the City?” Vevea asks.  “We’re not talking about shipping kids into one of the dicier neighborhoods of the City. We’re talking about Old Town.”  She points out that expensive houses have been built right adjacent to Manierre, but middle-class parents (both black and white) won’t consider it. We’re left to ponder what might have happened if the $20 million had instead been spent on this classic, struggling neighborhood school.

A similar issue exists along Ashland Avenue just west of the wealthy West Loop community. Skinner West, a relatively new school, will also be getting a $20-million addition, despite the existence of Brown just six blocks north, but west of Ashland.Skinner is considered over-crowded because it has a city-wide gifted program with 600 of its 950 students attending from all over the City.

“In the case of Skinner West & Brown,” asserts Vevea, “the District could have decided to move the gifted program to Brown. You know now they say we’re going to give Brown $5-million and make it a STEM school. It’s still I believe going to have a neighborhood component, and yes, that will be a very good investment for Brown. I go back to my earlier point though, unless Brown is able to attract the new residents that school will remain segregated. That school will remain in a racially and economically isolated situation.” That despite the fact that it is geographically, if not socially, only a few blocks away.

Obviously, the CPS planners are dealing with powerful social forces. As Education chief Janice Jackson told WBEZ, there’s only so much she can do. At some point parents have to believe the schools are worthwhile and send their kids there. If they don’t do it,”they have choice”.

Over the years, CPS has tried building new, quality schools in minority neighborhoods with wide boundaries, but they don’t attract students from outside the neighborhood. “There are schools in Austin, now this is shocking, there are schools that are the highest rated in Chicago Public Schools in Austin, in brand new buildings because Mayor Daley built some very new buildings all over Austin in the mid-2000s,” Karp explains. “But that is on a whole different planet than somebody who lives in Edgebrook. I just don’t… I mean I guess that’s something we have to discuss as a City.”

But Karp concludes that, after years of reporting on CPS, there’s one certainty. “That parents actually want good neighborhood schools. They want good schools that they know they can get in.”

Yesterday, after months of wrangling in Springfield resulted in cash infusion of possibly $600 million, CPS was able to cobble together a budget. Despite the fact that about $250 million of the pension relief funding is predicated on some kind of “pension reform” being passed before January, Karp says CPS is moving full-steam ahead.

“We’re counting on it. We’re already budgeting for it, so the damn money better come in.”

You can read a full transcript of this show in Word format HERE: CN transcript July 14 2016

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CN July 7 2016


Something truly unusual happened in Springfield last week. How can you tell? For the first time in memory, Forrest Claypool appeared in public…smiling. More than smiling, he had a huge grin on his face, matched by the Mayoral smile and Janice Jackson’s happy face. The occasion was the opening of the fiscal flood gates, with as much as $600 million flowing into CPS, assuring that the schools will open on time in September.

Screenshot 2016-07-07 07.20.17.png

(Sun-Times photo)

But nothing’s ever that simple in Illinois.

A promised state payment of $205 million toward CPS teacher pensions, we discover in the small print, won’t arrive until 2017, and then only if  by January the Legislature is able to pass “pension reform”, however that’s defined.

But at the Mayor’s press conference, that issue was brushed aside for the celebration.

“The schools are going to open,” Tribune City Hall reporter John Byrne explains. “All those smiles were – schools are going to open.”

“They wanted to get out of Springfield and say schools are going to open and that the road construction projects would not stop,” adds WLS-AM morning anchor John Dempsey. “And they are putting everything off until after the election.”

“And by the way, we’re not going to have to have 50 kids in a classroom,” Byrne says. “Which was the other big thing. And Emanuel weirdly at the end of that news conference was taking questions and then just looked directly at the cameras and spoke to the parents of Chicago and made this sort of valedictory speech about his accomplishments. And then his people pushed all of us really hard in the next 48 hours to frame this thing as a victory for the Mayor. I mean the Emanuel press operation is never subtle, but even for them this was a really hard sell…”

On Wednesday, there was a hearing at City Council chambers, but the public was not in a charitable mood. With little notice, the public was asked for its input about the Mayor’s attempt to replace the Independent Police Review Authority with a different, supposedly more independent board.

“But people were not happy with the way these hearings were set up,” Byrne explains. “Including the head of the task force, Lori Lightfoot, who said you can’t be doing weekday…a couple of weekday hearings …At City Hall and the people who are really impacted by police misconduct to be able to get down there to voice their opinions and have any input into this.”

And there’s always the issue of just how much this public input really counts when it comes to writing the ordinance. “It remains to be seen how much any of this testimony plays into the final product that comes out of Emanuel’s office,” says Byrne.

Chicago’s new police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has his hands full. Facing a bloody July 4th weekend, he flooded the most violence-prone neighborhoods with thousands of extra police officers, and arrested 88 people on the Department’s list of known violence-prone individuals. On Sunday evening it seemed to be working, and he held a press event to announce the good numbers.

“Because at that point on Sunday there had only been about 20 or 21 shootings over the long 4th of July weekend, and he was maybe doing a touchdown dance in the end zone prematurely because the weekend wasn’t over yet,”Dempsey tells us.

“It got ugly,” Byrne adds. “It got ugly after that.”

“In a 15-hour span Monday into Tuesday half of the weekend’s 66 shootings took place in that 15-hour span and that made Eddie Johnson really look bad by prematurely bragging about how great the police did,” Dempsey asserts.

“And then we ended up higher than we did the prior 4th of July weekend,” Byrne points out.

“Right,” says Dempsey. More shootings than last July 4th, and Rahm spun it by saying, “Oh, but there were fewer fatalities, fewer homicides than on any 4th of July weekend in the past 8 years.”

And what about those 88 people arrested before the weekend began? Byrne says it helps with the statistics. “They were saying, We’re going to get these guys off the street this weekend. Go get them off the street. Find a reason to get them off the street. And if they have drugs you take them off the street, and then they don’t get shot and they don’t mess with your stats on the 4th of July weekend and you worry about it next weekend.”

Another curious statement at this press event involved police staffing levels. Johnson hinted that the Department might need more officers, something that Emanuel and former Chief Garry McCarthy have always denied. So what’s the politics of this ?

“When you hire Johnson to be your police superintendent though, Emanuel did this in large part because he needed somebody in there who the rank and file guys trust, Byrne explains. “And a statement like this from Johnson, it wasn’t like he was out there saying, “We need to hire more cops,” but he’s at least out there a little bit acknowledging what the FOP says, acknowledging the truth as seen by rank and file cops. And maybe from Emanuel’s perspective it’s worth it to have a little bit of friction with Johnson on this because he needs Johnson to rally these guys to be aggressive.”

“And I think Emanuel and Johnson have to walk a fine line between saying to the community, “I’m with you. I don’t want to have brutal cops,” and saying to the police officers, “I have your back. You are the last line of defense…” adds Dempsey.

“Johnson can maybe go a little farther over that line than him,” says Byrne. “And Emanuel may be saying, I don’t know whether Emanuel said, “Yeah, go ahead and suggest that we may need more cops,” but now that Johnson’s done that, you know, Johnson, at least to the rank and file cops… Eddie finally said what we’ve all been saying for the last 5 years. He’s better than McCarthy.”

Finally, there’s agreement  that much of the budget maneuvering was about getting something done before the November elections, but John Dempsey says it might not help Bruce Rauner.

“I don’t think there’s any way that the Republicans can seize control of the Illinois House. I think their best hope would be to reduce Madigan’s…the veto proof majority. So, let’s say that Rauner fails and that not enough Republicans win for him to cut into Madigan’s veto proof majority. What does he do in January? Now we’re in January of 2017. Rauner has to be re-elected in 2018. Does Rauner back off from his agenda?”

You can read a full transcript in Word format HERE: CN Transcript July 7 2016


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CN June 30 2016

They did it. The government of Illinois, in an almost unheard-of period of cooperation, agreed to a budget, of sorts, that will allow Illinois schools to open in September.

It’s only a six-month budget, designed, frankly, to get the elected officials just beyond the November election. At that point they’ll have a  clearer sense of the State’s political picture, and they may find it easier to work toward a more permanent solution.

The schools, though, got 12 months of funding, and CPS even got a little extra cash – and permission to raise Chicago’s taxes to pay for teacher pensions.

Just before the vote, we sat down with Politico writer Natasha Korecki. Her daily Illinois Playbook is an indispensable digest of local and state news, and she’s been following the Springfield saga closely.

“So there’s social service funding in there,” she begins. “There’s MAP grant funding which was huge for Madigan. That was one of the things he really wanted. Chicago State will get an infusion, so there’s some higher ed money in there. There is capital projects money, so they are talking about 30,000 workers who are unionized, they go back to work. If you’re a Democrat and Unions are your bread and butter how do you say no to that? So there was a little bit of something for everyone.”

Politics, of course, is in every nook and cranny of this agreement. Both sides had a vested interest in delaying really serious budget negotiations until after the November elections, because that’s when they’ll  know who’s on which team.

But the fact that the Governor agreed to let go of his “turnaround agenda” today might indicate that his political calculus is changing a little.

“How do you pick up seats when what you’re looking at is Trump on the top of the ticket in a very blue state in a presidential year, there’s higher democratic turnout…? Korecki asks.

And Hillary Clinton is popular in Illinois one presumes?

“Yes,” she says. “I mean she had a harder time in the primary than was expected, but yes. And you can argue that downstate is Trump territory and so forth, but other things, you’re looking at all these contested races. So the Governor is trying to not… He’s trying to win seats and now he’s looking at well, there’s money that’s not going to prisons in some of these districts that are contested. These Republicans are going to lose their seats. Schools might not open. Who is going to wear the jacket for that?”

One factor that might have helped CPS was the Emanuel/Claypool effort to recruit school superintendents from districts across the state, who stood with Chicago in arguing that their schools, too, have insufficient funding for low-income and special-needs students. “Their strategy then and even this week was – look at who else benefits,” Korecki explains. “It’s not just the City of Chicago. It’s Peoria and Waukegan and all over the State, and in this Senate Education Bill they did something similar where there was analysis looking at far south Illinois and those districts that are really hurting. They are going to get money. So you’re bringing more people in that way.”

We talk about George Lucas’ announcement that the Lucas Museum will not be built in Chicago. “A key point there, is that there was a constitutional problem with this and a federal judge cited against the City,” Korecki explains. “So whether it was the Friends of the Parks or someone else, I mean there is that component. The politics of this is fascinating, because here is a time when the very wealthy, the very connected, we said no to them. The City said, No, you can’t do this. You can’t do it here. Sorry.”

A few days ago, the police union’s Dean Angelo addressed the City club, and in a provocative speech, he said many police believe the City no longer has their backs.

“I talked to Dean Angelo a couple of weeks ago for a piece I did,” she tells us, “And he was talking about how,  some of his officers are just like, they see this big group on the corner, maybe they would have gone and like broken it up before something happens, but now they’re just kind of like yelling out the window, because they fear that just something is going to go wrong, something is going to be taken out of context and so forth. You know, of course then there’s the ACLU and there’s other forces saying, “Well, can’t you do your job without beating the snot out of someone illegally…” And there’s that disconnect, and I think there are a lot of very good police officers who maybe do just fear being wrongly accused of something.”

You can subscribe to Illinois Playbook HERE.

And you can read a full transcript of this program, in Word format, HERE: CN transcript June 30 2106

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CN June 16 2016

Killer Joe was a smash hit at Profiles Theater. The critics loved it. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family (to put it mildly) and a detective who could be hired to kill.

For the audience, it was a raw, intense experience. If it looked like the refrigerator broke through the set when lead actor (and artistic director) Darrell Cox threw another actor up against it, well, it really did.

Now, that story – and, by implication, a number of yet-untold stories about other theaters in Chicago – is being laid bare by the Chicago Reader in a detailed investigative piece by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt. It’s called At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real . Levitt, along with News Editor Robin Amer, are this week’s guests.

“It was a very big deal for them,” Amer begins. “They got a lot of accolades for this show. And the text of the play calls for a certain level of violence between the principal characters in the play, and Profiles Theater did hire a professional choreography firm to choreograph these fight scenes. For example, the script calls for the lead male actor seeming to choke one of the female leads. But what we found in our investigation was that the established professional choreography that was intended to protect the actors was thrown out after the choreography firm left. And so the fight scenes that appeared to the critics and to the audiences to just be choreographed and fake were in fact real. That the bruises on the arms of the lead actress, Somer Benson, who is one of the sources in our story, those bruises were real. The choking of her was real. When you saw one of the actors get slammed against a refrigerator on set that was real. So the protections that were supposed to exist for these actors really broke down.”

We go to theater for a variety of reasons. But in dramatic productions, we always understand – or think we do – that what we’re watching is an illusion. There is, as Amer explains, a “compact” with the audience.

“But to suddenly be told no, this woman actually is getting beaten up on stage, she’s actually being harmed. In fact, she is so traumatized that after the performance every night she can’t speak. It breaks down that compact and it in a way even makes the audience unknowingly complicit in the violence that’s being perpetrated on these actors. And I don’t think any of us who live in Chicago who love the theater, nobody wants that.”

One of the big issues at Profiles, the Reader found, was an almost complete lack of accountability. The theater was, in many ways, almost a one-man show. And that man was Darrell Cox. “Well, the actor of the performance was also oftentimes the director,” Amer explains.  “And when he wasn’t the director he was still the co-artistic director and there was no independent board of directors. So if you’re looking to appeal to people higher up in the organization to say there’s something bad happening, there was nobody to go to here.”

And the problems weren’t all confined to the stage.

“You had a powerful artistic director and lead actor who was pursuing romantic relationships with many women who came through the front door as actors and actresses,” Levitt tells us. “And that made the story very complicated because there was, you know the personal and the professional bled together. So you had women who were actresses who were starring in these productions, who were also oftentimes in romantic relationships with the artistic director. And so whatever was happening in their personal or domestic relationship was bleeding on to the stage and vice-versa.”

Why wasn’t this widely known in the acting community, we ask. The theater had been in business for thirty years.

“It was whispered,”says Levitt. People would write things on bathroom walls. Actresses would say, “Don’t go there.” They would tell each other there’s a network.”

But actors and crew members, Amer and Levitt tell us, often felt trapped.

“Nobody believes the victims,” Levitt explains, giving an example of a woman who came to the company as a teenager in a play featuring a predatory older man who has a teenaged girlfriend. Ally eventually appeared in three plays, but left under terrible circumstances, according to Levitt.

“Yes, she was a company member, and then at the end he said all these harassing things to her, and then at the end, the relationship, it turned romantic and then it got abusive and she left. And then she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to protect women. She went to her agent and her agent said, “Well I can’t do anything, but why don’t you tell somebody in power?” So she wrote an email to Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey.

Daniels and Lavey were high-powered leaders at Steppenwolf.

“And we spoke to both Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey and they confirmed that they did receive Ally’s email and that they met to discuss what if anything they could do about it,” asserts Amer. “And they told us that they felt hamstrung by the fact that Ally didn’t want to come forward and use her real name with her allegations and Martha Lavey told us, “If Ally wanted to come forward and use her full name and go public with the allegations I would have stood behind her, but because she didn’t I felt like there was nothing I could do.” And you know I think we felt it was important to document the efforts that these women had made to get somebody in the community to take their allegations seriously. But again, the point of going into all that is when something bad happens who do you go to, who can you trust? If you can’t go to the company, the head of the company, if you can’t go to the board of directors, if you can’t go to the critics who do you go to? I mean it’s no accident that they went to  women in the scene that they perceived as being in positions of power, because who else could they trust? Who could they go to for help? They didn’t know.”

But, says Aimee,  “And then the women didn’t help either.” Ally claims she never heard back from either woman.

There’s also the role of theater critics to consider. As already mentioned, the theater often received enthusiastic reviews, at least in part for the realism its shows offered. For much of that time, the article’s co-author Christopher Piatt was a critic for Time Out Chicago. Reacting to an actor’s lament that she tried to contact Dan Savage and Oprah Winfrey to tell her stories because she couldn’t trust the local critics, Piatt wrote this in a follow-up Reader piece:

“I had been one of those critics who loudly praised some of the lurid sexist shock jock melodramas Profiles produced over the years. Reading (Sue) Redmond’s explanation was devastating. It made me fully grasp my own boneheaded complicity in the story.”

“So Sue sent that email to Dan Savage in 2011 three years before Christopher ever started looking into this story,” Amer explains. “I think he especially was really heartbroken to realize that the community of actors and actresses who say that they had been abused there were too afraid to go to the theater critics in Chicago for help because they didn’t trust them.”

The Reader has set up an email tip line for people who have experienced similar cases of abuse or misconduct. It’s at Tips@chicagoreader.com.

The Reader coverage has had powerful impact. The author of what was to be the company’s next play withdrew it. And yesterday, without fanfare, Profiles announced on its website that it was closing. Forever.

You can read a full transcript of this show in Word format HERE:CN transcript June 16 2016


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CN June 9 2016


How to make sense out of the catastrophic mess in Springfield.

Well, the Tribune’s Kim Geiger takes a stab at it. She tells us, shockingly, that it’s politics.

“This is a Democratic presidential year,” she reminds us. “Down- ballot Democrats tend to do well in these years, and Chicago has a very strong Democratic base anyway. So (Bruce Rauner’s) essentially kind of sacrificing his standing in Chicago in order to boost his appeal to the others in downstate areas in a way that he could then maybe get some…gain some seats down in those areas.

And  a net gain of even a few seats switched from Democratic to Republican could give the Governor enormous influence in the Legislature.

So is that what’s going on? Nobody plans to do anything substantive until November, when we’ll have a new Legislature?

“Well, it depends on who you talk to,” Geiger explains. “If you talk to the Governor he would say that they are slow-walking it and that they are playing a game. I think what we saw on Tuesday was a legit, like, meltdown on the part of the Democratic majority, just an inability to agree on what was the way that they were going to come at this. And also I think it’s worth pointing out that the Governor had said after the House passed their budget bill, it was like a week before the end of session, the Governor came out and said, “I’m going to veto that.” So you had the Senate sitting there looking at this bill thinking you know if we pass this bill and it goes to the Governor it’s going to be vetoed anyway. So there wasn’t a whole lot of incentive at that point for the two sides to get together and do this when it was all really just going to be more show.”

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has put together his own initiative to stymie the Governor and pressure him for equitable  school funding across the state. He’s called upon, and garnered the cooperation of, superintendents across the state with high numbers of impoverished students to rally with him for increased funding.

Sun-Times education reporter Lauren Fitzpatrick says it’s easy to forget that Chicago’s not the only place with lots of low-income kids.

“These are the superintendents whose districts have so many low-income kids and whose property tax wealth is not able to do the job,” she tells us. “These are the districts that will not be able to open their doors unless some kind of state aid comes through. I mean there are plenty of districts in the State where they would feel a pinch if there’s nothing coming from Springfield, but basically they are supporting themselves off of their own local revenue. Claypool has found a bunch of these places where they’re stuck.”

Meanwhile, bills ping-pong across the building from Senate to House and back again. But Geiger says  the Senate’s john Cullerton wants three key things. First, he wants to give the Mayor and the Board of Ed  the power to raise the ceiling on taxes it can levy on Chicagoans.

“And the Senate has already voted to do this,” Geiger explains. “But this bill is stuck in the House and it’s another case of even if both chambers passed it would the Governor approve it, so they want the Governor’s backing of this idea. They also want pension parity for CPS. They want State help paying for the pension costs for Chicago Public Schools. Those two things are very specific to Chicago. They relate just to Chicago. Then the third thing is that they want a formula change to the way that the money gets doled out to schools.”

“If the point of state funding is to help kids in districts that aren’t necessarily able to keep up with their needs and that’s the philosophy behind it, then you know the formula right now kind of doles out an equal amount of money per poor child no matter where they are,” FitPatrick adds. “So if you’re in let’s say Highland Park and you have let’s say a couple dozen children who are considered living in poverty, you know maybe you don’t need quite as much help from the State catching those kids up and supporting them as opposed to – and I just know Chicago the best – where 86% of your kids are poor, you do need as much help as you can get kind of leveling the playing field.

So a sort of “game of chicken” has broken out between the CTU and CPS that’s gummed up any hope of reaching a contract agreement in the near future.

Fitzpatrick explains the machinations. “Claypool definitely wants Springfield to act first and then agrees with the Mayor that the City will come afterwards and then they will work out the deal with the CTU and everybody will do their part, but Springfield has to go first.”

“They’ve hammered out a bunch of details,” she continues, “But until CPS knows how much money it actually has it can’t really make decisions on how it’s going to pay teachers or what it’s going to demand from them, so really until some of this other stuff shakes out they’re just in a holding pattern for a little while longer.

“The CTU is saying, No. Springfield , we can’t count on them to do anything. We need to start helping ourselves first, so we need the City to start coming up with ways to generate revenue. And this is a point the Union is making too, even if Springfield comes through on everything we want them to, it’s still not going to be enough.”

So, will the Governor and the Legislature find a way in the next few weeks to open the State’s  schools in September?

“Yes. Yes. They have to,” Fitzpatrick asserts. “And if it were just Chicago we were talking about I don’t know what my answer would be at this time, but there’s no way that all schools, most schools in Illinois are not going to be able to open in September.” Remember, there’s an election just 2 months later.

You can read a full transcript of this show in Word format HERE:CN transcript June 9 2016



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CN June 2, 2016

Forrest Claypool laid it out in stark terms yesterday. Unless there’s a state budget, with funding for Chicago Public Schools, no Chicago school will open in September. They just don’t have the money.

“I don’t think he’s posturing,” says Tribune City Hall correspondent Hal Dardick.. “If you look at the finances of the Chicago Public Schools they have about $20-million in their bank account and with the kind of payroll they have that’s pennies. That’s a few days, you know, and they don’t have the ability like some other districts to borrow money. They have a junk bond rating. They had to pay a really high 7½% interest rate the last time they borrowed money, and the markets probably next time would just say no, we’re not even going to loan to you, or we’re going to do it at such exorbitant prices that it’s untenable. So he can’t do any of the things that you would do in a crisis. There’s no reserves to spend. They won’t open, I think he’s right.”

We talk Springfield on this week’s show, specifically the epic collapse of any effort to create a budget before the end of the Spring session on Tuesday night. Reuters correspondent Dave McKinney tells us the plan Mike Madigan’s House passed was seven billion dollars out of balance, and was never serious.

“A total wish list, so it wound up getting out of the House comfortably, but then it just sat and sat and sat in the Senate, he explains. “And even though the Senate is the upper legislative chamber in Illinois they have a bit of an inferiority complex there because they are just years and years and years of being spoon-fed by Mike Madigan, and a lot of members who have been around a long time are resentful of that.

“And so when they see this gigantic budget bill coming to them in an election year that doesn’t have any way to pay for it they know immediately hey, this is a problem, we could wind up suffering in the fall.”

In terms of the raw politics, McKinney tells us there are plenty of House Democrats who are getting worried after seeing the cash resources Governor Rauner was able to marshall against a couple of members in the primaries. “It took $5 or $6-million in spending,” he tells us, “And most of these legislators have no means to get that kind of money. They’re completely dependent on Madigan and the Unions to come up with it, and everybody is like, if we can avoid that fight we would love to avoid that fight.  So, yeah, Rauner does have a little bit of leverage that way, but what we’re seeing right now is just this deadlock we’ve had since really the beginning of ’15 when Rauner came into office, it’s just a continuation of that and I don’t see any immediate end to it in Springfield.”

Mayor Emanuel scored a major victory on Memorial day when both the House and Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto of a bill that allows Chicago to extend payments into its police and fire pensions.

“It gives the City 15 more years to bring financial health back to the police and fire funds which are woefully underfunded,” Dardick explains. “They are about more than $10-billion short in money, and they would go broke in 7 or 8 years without more money. But the Mayor agreed, he passed a property tax increase last year, a record high property tax increase to put money into it. But at the same time it wasn’t enough to pay them down under the current schedule which would have been 25 years. He wanted to extend it to 40 years so he doesn’t have to raise those property taxes any further.”

Dardick said Emanuel didn’t go to Springfield, but he worked the phones and Facebook diligently beforehand pushing for the override.

“I can tell you he is working the phones,’ he says. “I think one thing you never do as a politician is you don’t go down there and actually be seen in person pushing for something if you’re not 100% sure it’s going to happen because then you look weak.”

So where do we go from here?

McKinney says expect only incremental progress between now and the November elections.

“Well, I do think that things will gravitate slowly back to this scheme that Rauner has floated to do a little bit of spending for fiscal 16 and then a K through 12 budget for fiscal 17,” he tells us. “I think that’s where they gravitate back toward, but it’s like a chessboard where there are two kings and that’s all that’s left on the board you know. They’re just chasing each other across the Board.

It’s not clear how much longer Rauner and Madigan can continue this stalemate. There’s increasing resistance in the Legislature itself, McKinney reports.

“Rank and file Republicans hate it; rank and file Democrats hate it. The Democrats hate it because the social service programs that they rely upon in their areas are going bankrupt and the universities and the MAP students. Most of the universities downstate are all in Republican districts. Those guys are acutely feeling the strain of the budget impasse.

“The failure to have a budget belies (Rauner’s) theme of fiscal responsibility, because every day that we don’t have a budget the debts grow, the interest on the debt grows. The problem for the State of Illinois becomes worse. There’s more risk of the debt ratings going down,” McKinney asserts.

You can read a full transcript of this show as a Word document here:   CN transcript June 2 2016



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CN May 26 2016


Karen Lewis takes us inside the bargaining sessions this week, and rejoices over the election of troy LaRaviere. She also explains why the CTU isn’t wildly enthusiastic about joining CPS in a united front against Bruce Rauner. It’s a wide-ranging conversation that covers many topics.

A few samples:

On support for Sen. Manar’s education funding revamp (SB 231)

(7:00) Ken: It’s controversial in so many ways but at least it’s something that’s on the table. Where are you on it?

KL: We support Senate Bill 231 as a first step. It’s not a solution to the problem.And while it does look like it’s taking from the rich and giving to the poor, what it does is it starts us on a road to equity. Not equality, but equity. And I think that people don’t understand the difference between the two concepts. Especially when you use property taxes as the majority of funding for public schools, there’s always going to be this huge gap – an inequality – from the very beginning. So if we’re going to evaluate people equally, then we have to have some sort of funding formula that works. I mean, it’s easy. Go to the wealthier school districts. Look at their  buildings. Look at their curriculum. Look at what they have to offer. It’s quite different from what you see in many of our schools.

What the CTU is fighting for in a contract:

(32:00) what my people would like to see and what they constantly complain about is the constant drumbeat of inane work. That’s just compliance. We want to see a change to the evaluation, where we’re not doing all this extra work just to justify that we’re doing good work. The new evaluation system as far as I’m concerned is a complete bust because they haven’t found all these terrible teachers that they claim exist…This notion that the system is full of incompetent teachers is just a joke. And trying to tie teaching to test scores is ridiculous.

What it’s like in the bargaining room:

(33:00) the actual bargaining meetings themselves are quite amicable. It always starts with (James) Franczek giving a big speech, and we all roll our eyes, going, OK, Franczek speech, you know, and then we tease him about whatever the heck he said –

Ken: And then you give a big speech?

KL: And then I give a big speech and they roll their eyes. It’s not ugly. Normally they’ll say, we can’t make a decision on that. And they take a caucus, and I guess they call the mayor, or they’ll come to us and we take a caucus and discuss it…

On the dismissal of Troy LaRaviere:

(41:00)I thought it was the stupidest move ever…when I first heard this I even brought it up at bargaining. I said, OK, what did Troy do now? And they were like, -what hasn’t he done? And I said, you all need to leave him alone. He’s a good principal, he does a good job, the parents and teachers seem to like him.

I’ve got a meeting with him today, this afternoon. (May 19)

Ken: Did you call him to congratulate him?

KL: Of course I did. I wrote him a little text, Mazel tov.

Ken: Ben Joravsky said the Mayor has now created a second Karen Lewis?

KL: He really has…and I hope Troy and I can work together, because I think the principals and the teachers union working together, we can fix this crazy system…I think it’s huge. Because I think that Troy has a vision. And because he has a vision that he wants principals’ voice to be heard, that it will be.

On Forrest Claypool

(44:35) I think the problem with CPS and the problem with Forrest as CEO, which is very different from previous CEOs is that they don’t, I mean the fact that we even have a CEO is a problem. Why can’t we have a Superintendent? Why can’t we have somebody that really gets education? Forrest is a numbers guy. He’s a technocrat. I kind of feel like what works for buses and trains doesn’t work for human beings. we need to figure out how we’re gonna work together to get stuff done. But we can’t get stuff done with – here’s some stuff (pushes paper across table). You go out and sell your members that. Nobody’s going for that. 

On the possibility of building a united front for reformed State funding

(51:30)Ken: Isn’t this one of those cases where there’s more that unites you than divides you?

KL: Let me just parse this out for you. I’m not gonna go for anything that ultimately doesn’t fix the problem. I’m not interested in any short-term band-aid approach. We have to look at a long-term set of things. We need to figure out how to work together to get progressive income tax in Illinois. How to at least restore the flat tax back to where it was. How to do a financial transaction tax. There’s a whole bunch of things we could do. look at Colorado. They legalized marijuana. All that money’s gone to education. They don’t have the problems we have. I got excoriated for talking about legalizing pot. Yet Rauner even says let’s decriminalize it. That’s a step. Let’s figure out where the money is instead of playing these little games around it, and coming up with slogans – we’re 20% f the population so we need to have 20%…

The problem is, they want us on their bus. I’m not getting on the crazy train with these people. I want to have real solutions that figure out how to deal structurally with these issues.

Ken: So you expect Rahm Emanuel and Forrest Claypool to get on your bus?

KL: Yes. ‘Cause our bus is also the humane bus. It’s not the crazy bus.

Ken: Of course, calling the other guy’s bus the crazy bus…

KL: (laughs)You didn’t think I was gonna go through this whole thing without saying one provocative thing about them?

Ken: I just was wondering, things are so bad that maybe we’d be better off if everybody could find a neutral bus to sit on, but…

KL If we could find that bus, I would be on it. There are certain things that I completely think we need to look at. And they keep saying that’s not on the table.

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CN May 19 2016


“It’s not a bailout. We just want our fair share. There’s a separate and unequal formula that is given to Chicago Public Schools.”

That’s how our conversation got started with Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr (21), who’s now the Chairman 0f the City Council’s Education Committee.

He’s been engaging in a written battle with Beth Purvis, Governor Rauner’s Secretary of Education. She wrote a Trib Op-Ed last week stating, in part:

“The stunning fact is that while the state provided major assistance to CPS, Chicago shirked its own duty to pay its pensions. From 1995 to 2015, the state sent CPS payments totaling approximately $1.1 billion for pension contributions. During that same time frame, CPS skipped pension payments for 10 straight years and received General Assembly approval for three additional years of contribution reductions.”

Brookins isn’t buying it. “Every other district, the state picks up their pension,” he explains. “We are in a hole because this year CPS will have to pay some $700-million towards pension payments. They want to say that there’s an issue that, well, we took pension holidays. Well CPS is in a better situation than the rest of the state with respect to pensions and pension solubility. We are funded at 52%, the rest of the state is funded at 42%. They allowed CPS to make these pension holidays in part because they did not want to come up with additional monies to help the school system at the time. So they said, “Oh well, just don’t make the pension payment this time and everything will be all right,” knowing that at some point this day was going to come.”

And when it comes, as it now has, Brookins says the state isn’t creative about how to allocate the cuts.

“And they say, ‘Okay, well we’re just going to cut education to 90% so that we can stay equal.’ Well in Barrington you’re relying on say 6% of the State money and in Chicago or somewhere else you may be relying on 20% or more. East St. Louis if you’re relying on say 50%, well the State cutting you that 10% pro rata is a bigger number than them cutting Barrington 6%.”

“We need a comprehensive revamp of how we fund education in the State of Illinois,” Brookins concludes.

In the meantime, with no state agreement on the horizon, CPS is preparing its schools to gird for a nearly 30% budget cut at every school in September.


There have been indications in the past week or so that CPS is about to launch a new round of contracts to privatize cleaning and maintenance services in many more schools. Brookins sees lots of disadvantages with privatization.

“In principle I think it can be a mistake,” he tells us. “And people always say, ‘Oh we should treat government like a business,’ and I say, well okay then, we are the CEOs. We would pay ourselves as much money as we could get. And then we would charge you or raise the taxes as high as you could stand.’ And so no, you don’t treat government like a business.”

One of Brookins’ concerns is accountability of the workers brought into replace City laborers.”Quality can suffer and who do they report to?” he asks. “Who influences them? So when we privatize say crews to do cement, if it’s a City crew out there I can get a supervisor on the phone as your elected official when you say, ‘Hey, they busted my sprinkler system. They disrespected me,’ etc., because they work for us, but when they work for some other company we can’t do that as elected officials.”

He gives us an example. “With Sodexho I know an exterminator who had been doing a good job, got great accolades. They didn’t have problems with respect to his work, but when you get a major company come in they want to say ‘well you’ve got to do it cheaper. You don’t need to do this, you don’t need to do that,’ and it’s like well that’s why we don’t have bugs – and it’s a problem. Cheaper is not always best.”

We talk about the on-going negotiations between the CTU and CPS.

“I want to sit down and talk to Karen (Lewis)”, he says. “I think that we are on the same page with respect to fixing the situation for money. She realizes that CPS doesn’t have the money, and it is within the best interest of the teachers and CPS that we get the money and then come up with a contract. I want to sit down and pick her brain and talk about permanent formula, funding solutions for the State of Illinois, what are the best practices going forward.”

“There’s no money and there’s no political will,” he continues.” I can’t go back to my constituents and ask them to swallow another property tax increase that still won’t resolve the problem that we have. She can’t go back to her constituents, her teachers who are relying on her, and tell them to take more concessions, raises, wages, work hours, etc., and knowing that you still may have to do this another time and another time. So we’re in uncharted waters, but the only way out is that we work together and swim in the same direction.”

And how does the Alderman feel about newly-appointed police superintendent Eddie Johnson?  He was neutral on the Mayor’s choices, he says, but he’s happy with Johnson. “I always like Chicago people being in the job because I don’t have to start out and for our first ten meetings I’m explaining historical information as to why does it make sense for you to put resources here because that’s been tried over and over, and he gets it.”

Brookins worked with Johnson for years when Johnson was the commander for part of his Ward. “So anything north of 87th Street, he was the Commander there. He was very community-oriented. He solved problems that we had and he would come out and articulate that to the community, so I thought he was a great person,” he says.

High on Johnson’s agenda, the Alderman says, is building  faith with a community that feels estranged from the police.

“We’ve got to restore that trust and some of it starts with the way you just treat people. I tell them all the time you can be firm with people, you can arrest them, but you’ve got to treat them with dignity with respect…But it is the perception of the Chicago police it starts out with the epithet, it continues with more expletives and you feel bad about the whole situation and they still give you a ticket.”

And there’s at least one area where Chairman Brookins differs sharply with Mayor Emanuel. “But I still think, and many of us in the City Council believe, that we actually just need more police officers to resolve some of the problem,” he asserts.

You can read the entire transcript as a Word document here:

CN transcript May 19 2016



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CN May 12 2016


We don’t have an actual  Chicago Newsroom this week, due to some construction issues with our new studio that will eventually give us much greater flexibility for future shows.

Instead, we’re offering an unedited recording of Troy LaRaviere’s statement this morning about his recent dismissal as principal of Blaine Elementary. The press availability, which was heavily attended by the media, was at the North Side Wishbone Restaurant.

We thought you might like to hear the entire statement, along with the unedited Q&A with the media afterward.

Here’s the statement:

And here’s the question and answer session with reporters.

Back with a new show next week….


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